When I started my first company, I was 21 years old and still in college. I had absolutely no money. If I did have any money, it instantly got spent on beer. (Didn't I just say I was a 21 year-old college student?)
Fast-forward three short years, and I now run one of the top five fitness services on the Internet. I've got all the money I need, and I spend my time either working on innovating new products, or traveling and experiencing everything the world has to offer. I never got VC or angel funding, and I never got a giant cash infusion from an investor, a bank loan or anyone else, in any capacity. So how did I get here?
The answer is simple: I stopped focusing on the money, and I started focusing on building something that people wanted to buy.
There are a ton of things you can do to build your company without any money. In fact, you can get pretty darn far with just Internet access, time and a clear vision. Here's a list of 10 steps you can take to help you build the business of your dreams, without spending more than a few hundred bucks:
1. Clarify your concept. What is the problem you want to solve? Outline, from start to finish, exactly how your company will function from a user's perspective. Then, outline exactly what you need to do to create that reality from the company's perspective. Be as detailed as possible, and ensure your outlined strategies don't require a crazy amount of cash to pull off. Chances are, you'll find a number of holes in your initial strategy that you'll have time to think through and solve–which you will want to do before you spend a dime on anything anyway.
2. Do market research. Walk people in your target market through your vision. Take their feedback into account and look for patterns. Your concept may make a ton of sense in your mind, but it may not make sense to customers. If they don't "get it" or see value in it, chances are they won't give you money—which is what you're typically after.
3. Wireframe. Come up with a detailed map of your company. If you've got an app idea or Internet business concept, map out every single screen. Where are all the buttons, and where do they take you? What does the copy say? What graphics do you need? If it's a brick-and-mortar store or a physical product, detailed designs and maps of the store or product are going to be necessary before you can develop your idea further. You can use programs like Photoshop for this, but you can also do this using paper and pencil. As you do, new issues and ideas will arise that will help you develop your concept even more.
4. Do a competitive analysis. What companies are using a similar business model, and how do they structure their company and their service? What companies are in your space currently, and what differentiates your company from theirs? Do as much research as you can, and use that knowledge to springboard your concept forward so you're not playing catch-up later.
5. Educate yourself. You may not have gone to business school (don't worry, neither did I), but you can still learn from the best. Services like Udemy offer low-cost or free resources to learn about business, entrepreneurship and various facets of marketing and sales that can help cut months or even years off your development time.
6. Research the reduction of costs of operation. In order to spend as little money as possible early on, compare costs of all the services that you need to employ in order to turn your concept into reality. Don't overlook sites like Elance, oDesk and Zirtual when it comes to hiring developers, designers, or various staff members. They can save you thousands of dollars, and can potentially provide you with a much more responsive and helpful service.
7. Start leveraging social networks. You can build your following without spending money. Get all your friends and family to start following your social networks, and give them regular updates on your progress. Give them incentives such as promo codes for your upcoming product. If you've already got a following, even a small one, it can help drive your initial sales.
8. Network, network, network. Go out and meet other entrepreneurs. Tell them and people in your space about what you're doing. Get them excited about the concept, and ask for their help if you think they can provide value. If you've already got a clear direction once you've launched, build an advisory board of five to seven fellow entrepreneurs with relevant success in your space. Give a percentage point of equity or two in exchange for advice, strategy and connections.
9. Find a mentor. One of the most powerful assets you can have in entrepreneurship is a mentor. This should be somebody you look up to who has already achieved a level of success you hope to someday reach yourself. Ask that person flat-out if he or she would consider mentoring you. Chances are the person will feel flattered and will say yes. From there, learn all you can.
10. Get a professionally designed logo. I saved this one for last because, even though it won't be your most powerful step, it will be a strong symbol of your progress for you personally and it may drive you to further action. Some services charge a few hundred dollars for a good logo, but I always love using LogoNerds.com. You can get a pretty solid logo done for $27!
Are these all the tasks you need to undertake to reach the level of success you want? Definitely not, but they are 10 powerful and necessary things that don't require any significant amount of money up front. Focus on getting these all done before spending more, and you'll be well on your way.
Travis Steffen is the founder of WorkoutBOX and ActionJunkie Labs. Steffen is a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) , an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched#StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and e-mail lessons.
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